The Malaysian author Tash Aw talks about his latest novel, Map of the Invisible World.
Tale of two brothers
It's hardly the most auspicious of starts. When I ask Tash Aw - the multi-award-winning Malaysian author of The Harmony Silk Factory - a gentle question about how he now feels about the follow-up, Map of the Invisible World, he pauses for a moment and takes a deep breath. "To be honest, it's difficult to have a view on it," he says. "For me, all the excitement and energy of writing a book happens when I'm actually writing it. The moment I've finished editing, the moment the proofs come out I begin to lose interest in it." He laughs. "I know, that sounds terrible and quite brutal, doesn't it?"
Worrying, too, if you'd planned to spend the afternoon talking about that very book with him. But just when I'm considering asking something even gentler - about his recent trip to Shanghai, for example - he senses my obvious concern. "Oh no, I don't mean it like that," he chuckles. "I don't mean that I lose interest in it in terms of what it's about: you just have to care less about it. It's a self-defence mechanism in a way: I pour so much into every book that when it's over, there is a great sense of loss. You have to try to get over that loss quite quickly, really."
That bereft feeling will be recognised by anyone who finishes one of Aw's books. The Harmony Silk Factory, published in 2005, won so many awards because its characters living in 1940s British-ruled Malaya were so intricately drawn. It was a genuine shame to leave the seemingly disreputable protagonist Johnny Lim behind. In Map of the Invisible World, the heartstrings are tugged more expertly, as we're introduced to the world of two orphaned brothers adopted by two very different families: Johan by a rich Malaysian couple living in Kuala Lumpur and Adam by a Dutch painter, Karl, from a simple coastal town in Indonesia.
As the book begins, Adam is powerlessly cowering in the bushes as his adoptive father is captured by soldiers. In the Indonesia of 1964, they are forcibly repatriating their old colonial masters, the Dutch. Map of the Invisible World is partly driven by the 16-year-old Adam's search for Karl, but it's real success is in the way Aw manages to weave in a backdrop of civil war, colonialism and a nice dash of international intrigue. It's a masterful act of plate-spinning that has led to comparisons between Aw and Graham Greene. Not that he would know - he deliberately doesn't read reviews.
"And actually, I didn't really find it an exercise in plate-spinning either," he teases. "My concentration is always on the story, the personal dramas that form the heart of the novel. So in this case it's very much about the brothers, their bonds, what held them together and whether they'll find each other again. I think everything else - the very messy politics of the time, the unravelling of the colonial strands - they're all in the background. I like to think of them as added bonuses - things you can appreciate if you want to but if you just want the story, you don't have to absorb them."
Indeed, Aw goes so far as to suggest that his latest novel could have actually been set at any time. I find this difficult to believe - it's precisely because of its setting in a region descending into crisis that it works so well. But it's true to say that underpinning both of his books is this sense that his stories are firmly rooted in their location, but also universal in the way they can cross times and cultures. And the little subtexts that run throughout Map of the Invisible World certainly reveal a writer who is more adept at allegory than he likes to let on. Even the idea of two brothers is mirrored in the relationship that Malaysia and Indonesia have between each other.
"When you grow up in Malaysia that's the way people will talk about Indonesia, as a brother. In fact they are very distinct and had very different paths through to independence. But just that idea of two brothers finding their own way in the world really appealed to me, brothers who on the surface have a lot in common but actually are very different. They're both struggling through a very difficult early time in their lives."
Aw certainly has a fascination with how South East Asia has changed since independence: Malaysia in 1957 and Indonesia (formally) in 1949. Marked by periods of great trauma and upheaval as well as times of prosperity, he's not sure that all the developments have been for the best. "Indonesia is a different case and very complex because it's a much bigger country and the gap between rich and poor is much greater. But if you take Malaysia as an example, 30 or 40 years ago there was much more of an emphasis on very basic things that could ensure a certain level of material comfort.
"So education was very important. Just having a roof over your head and a solid job was significant. But as Malaysia has become more middle class, these things are less decisive. The notion of 'becoming civilised' or getting educated has become less crucial, strangely, than just the simple act of making money. Money is king now in a way that it really wasn't." These are recent economic developments, but the changes that Map of the Invisible World documents are far more important in terms of the newly independent countries' directions. They're reflected in the experience of Din, a research student working for an American anthropologist, Margaret Bates (who Adam seeks out for assistance because she's an old flame of Karl's). He hatches a plot against the president Sukarno in the messy period of Indonesian revolution, which the impressionable Adam is unwittingly dragged into. It's tempting to suggest that Din represents the idea Aw so eloquently suggests throughout the book with both the brothers and the countries: that only by finding your past can you claim your future.
"Well, he's certainly trying to achieve a very violent rupture with his country's colonial history," says Aw. "For him, though, this isn't about reclaiming history from the one written by the colonial powers, but to go so far, even, to suggest that the 300 years of Dutch colonialism never actually existed. Certainly there was a movement - which continues today in a small way - that attempts to nationalise not just big companies but small things such as street names and buildings. There was a really ruthless tearing down of old buildings - which in South East Asia happens at an alarming rate - and a complete denial of history."
Aw thinks that such brutality towards history has much to do with the fact that many felt it wasn't their own history in any case. But perhaps that can also be a liberation, a blank slate, a chance to start again. "Well, the people who did such things would say that's necessary to forge our own identity, but I would say it's ultimately self-defeating. You can't deny history happened, and if you can't join up all the various bits of your own history, whether you like them or not, you're never going to be able to form a complete idea of yourself that's going to last into the future.
"It's interesting: Judeo-Christian cultures tend to commemorate pain, suffering and trauma. Whereas I think the way Asian cultures deal with the same issues is to forget about them. When I was researching The Harmony Silk Factory, it was set in a part of Malaysia my grandparents live in, which is very rich in war stories and where I spent my school holidays. "So when I came to write the novel I thought this was going to be easy. I would just ask people for personal recollections. Did anyone want to talk about it? Of course not. They all lived through not just the war but the communist insurgency, but there's an extreme reluctance to talk about it. I don't really know why this happens: perhaps it's because the level of suffering is so great it's the only way to deal with it." As a Malaysian living in London, Aw says writing about his home is actually simpler from a distance. It makes it easier, he says, to write with more clarity and objectivity. Such distance, you sense, has also made him care deeply about Malaysia and South East Asia beyond the subject matter of his books.
He speaks of wanting to broaden his horizons in terms of the literary ground he covers in the future, and perhaps stretch his wings geographically, but in a way, this might be something of a loss. There aren't many best-selling writers setting their stories in a South East Asia free of exotica and cliché. And yet Aw plays on those clichés, too. Din wants to write a secret history of the Indonesian islands, what he calls a "lost world where everything remained true and authentic, away from the gaze of foreigners.""
This drawing of a map of the invisible world, so to speak, is yet another way in which the book operates on a far deeper, more satisfying level, where it combines - as Aw has already hinted at - a personal and a national ache. "It's not peculiar to Din, either," says Aw. "I think there's always been a little part of the Asian psyche that would like us to believe there's a part of Asia which is inaccessible to foreigners, that's ours, has always been ours and remains ours.
"But then, that again is another little fiction, which this book is full of. It's full of people trying to convince themselves of myths in order to live happily. "And the ones who end up having the happiest and most settled lives are the ones who can deal with and dispel those myths and deal with the reality of what's going on around them." And the real success of the novel, beyond its beautiful prose which can both revel in the Spartan happiness of the Indonesian islands and the sweat and heat of the city, is that it is, in the end, about people as well as politics.
As the two brothers' splintered memories are recalled, the moment they were prized apart from each other is genuinely heartbreaking."I have a horror of neat endings, because life isn't like that," he says. "Books have to hint at some sort of lifelike truth, don't they? We've been programmed to expect closure and resolution, but how often do we get it? Rarely." Which, after that inauspicious start, is a neat ending all of its own.
Map of the Invisible World (4th Estate) is available in hardback (Dh128, Magrudy's).